Tucked in your daily routine are the secrets to your child’s literary education.
You’ll want to know what these are because your child’s literacy depends more on his grasp of the stuff of life than on his ability to decipher short-vowel sounds. After all, you and I can understand literature not only because we can physically read, but also because we can think well about stories and literary themes.
Nurturing a true reader…
Though a child may decipher the words in a chapter book, he may not understand friendship, sacrifice, and redemption. Another child may struggle to sound out multi-syllabic words, but may grasp the stuff of life.
Which child will love reading and read well throughout life?
If I were a betting woman, I’d place my money on the second child because he has the makings of a true reader.
- A true reader is a person who can identify heroes and villains, discern between good and evil, and think deeply about universal truths.
- A true reader knows how to follow a story from its introduction to its climax to its ending.
- He knows how to analyze an author’s choices, a character’s decisions, and a story’s message.
- She is strengthened by every book she reads because she knows how to think well.
One of the most thrilling aspects of motherhood is helping our children develop these beautiful capabilities from birth. (If you’ve been bored by “the early years” of motherhood, this may ignite a fire in you! Catch a vision for engaging your child in goodness, truth, and beauty. It’s never too early – or too late- to begin.)
Teach your baby to read before he learns to read.
Mothers are humanity’s first Literature professors: we teach our children how to read as we nurture them through infancy on up.
Every little thing is material for conversations that will shape our child’s ability to read well. When we talk to our children, we label their world – “See that fireman? He is a hero who rescues people from fires even when he is afraid.”
We develop our child’s understanding of life, of good and evil, heroism, hope, friendship, and anticipation.
Our ongoing conversation with our children is at the heart of their literary education.
When we talk to our little ones about the stuff of life, we set them up to understand The Bible, to appreciate Black Beauty in grade school, and to grasp Hamlet in high school. We set them up to love reading, to grow from the books they read, and to live well.
To build a foundation for your child’s literacy, throw your heart and soul into 2 simple daily habits:
- Read aloud. Stories themselves will introduce your little one to countless life lessons. (I’m hoping to write a post about this next. For now, visit The Read-Aloud Revival‘s blog and podcast. You’ll love it.)
- Talk about literary themes. That’s right. Literary themes are for babies. Read on…
Don’t be intimidated by “literary themes”.
You may associate the term “literary themes” with an overbearing high school English teacher, but let me assure you: literary themes are simply the stuff of life.
Long before your English teacher assigned that 5-page paper about the literary themes in Moby Dick, you were surrounded by the concepts of defiance, duty, friendship, and death. Like the constellations that make sense of outer space, literary themes help us to make sense of truths that are bigger than ourselves, like life and death, rebirth, social mobility, and prejudice.
Classic literature is classic literature because it deals with the stuff of life.
The best books are the best books because they help us to make sense of life.
The life-concepts that a book tackles are its literary themes.
Your baby + intentional conversations = a true reader.
As your child explores the world, you will have countless opportunities to put words around the things she is observing.
Every family relationship, every task, habit, storybook, holiday, and walk in the park is replete with truths that can be expressed in simple, child-friendly terms.
Look for ways that you can connect everyday observations and experiences to deeper things: a fireman is a hero, a flower is beautiful, a loss is painful. A few simple sentences will do. A little bit here, a little bit there, and you will have introduced and exercised your child’s vital literary skills.
With a little practice and a lot of heart, you can do this.
Ten Literary Themes for You and Your Baby
I gathered 10 literary themes that probably pop up in your child’s life on a regular basis. Skim the list and start talking about them today. (Of course, you don’t have to use the phrase “literary themes” until your child is in middle school. Remember, this is just the stuff of life. Maybe this isn’t your style, but keep in mind that these concepts will make you a more authentic and thoughtful person. On its best day, that’s what reading is all about.)
- The circle of life:
Every day, we walk by the same rose bush. We notice that each flower endures a season of preparation as a bud, has its day of beauty, and endures a season of aging, decay, and death. We notice that on the same day that yesterday’s flower is fading, yesterday’s bud is entering its own day of beauty.
2. The beauty of simplicity:
When we clean up a chaotic playroom and enjoy one simple toy together in the middle of a clean carpet, I sigh with relief about the peace that comes with simplicity. I may say, “Isn’t it so nice to play with one thing at a time? Simplicity is so good for us.”
3. Darkness and light:
Every Halloween, we talk about the difference between darkness and light: we observe the physical, literal difference of a candle in a dark room, as well as the metaphoric difference between good and evil. We overcome the holiday’s emphasis on fear and death by blessing our neighbors with kindness.
4. Love and sacrifice:
We often talk about the cost of loving one another. We need to be quiet when the baby is napping. We need to share our snacks with our friends. We need to work hard to set the table so that our family can eat together. Each act of love requires a sacrifice.
5. Man vs. Nature:
When the toddler faces a frightening thunderstorm, a dog, or a bumblebee, we talk about nature’s power. We admit that we are afraid because sometimes nature is more powerful than we are. What can we do to overcome its fearsome power? What can we do to stay safe and make wise choices? What songs can we sing to remind ourselves that God is more powerful than nature, that He loves us and cares for us?
6. Necessity of Work:
How do Mommy and Daddy provide for our family? Why does Mommy love to write? Why does Daddy mow the lawn? Why do I have to pick up my toys? Because God created us to work, and we must work in order to survive, to build a home, and to love one another well.
7. Wisdom of experience:
Let’s say our toddler was balancing on a small wagon until the wheels began to roll. She fell down with a thud. After comforting the little daredevil, I may say, “Look what you learned from that! Now you know to be more careful. You gained wisdom from that experience.”
Whenever possible, I talk about people who do brave and difficult things even when they are frightened or tired. Who protects and defends other people? These are real life heroes. “Look at Daddy protecting his baby from the rain even though his back is getting wet!” “Look at Mommy emptying the mouse trap even though she is grossed out.” These daily occasions demonstrate the heroic qualities of self-sacrifice and courage.
When I am impatient or when the toddler throws a fit, we experience redemption after the tension has cleared away. When we are all patched-up, playing happily together again, I may say, “Thank you God, for redeeming my impatience. Isn’t God so good to make things better?”
10. Good vs. Evil:
This one’s a weighty concept, eh? Yet, the youngest member of society knows the difference between being treated kindly vs. being treated poorly. Though I would never say, “That kid who snatched your toy is evil,” I may say, “Grabbing toys is unkind. We feel much better when we respect one another. God wants us to respect each other because it is good.”
You get the idea!
Of course, our daily interactions aren’t as staged as my examples seem, but you get the idea. (And you probably have some great ideas spinning around in your head about how you may do this… differently… better! I’d love to know.)
The point is, after much use, these themes are in my blood and I look for ways to talk about them regularly with each of our children. I’m beginning to see some beautiful effects from conversations with our 12, 9, and 5 year old readers. I feel very good about their depth of understanding and their relationships with books. It motivates me to keep talking about literary themes with them – and not to grow lazy in my daily interactions with our baby and 3-year old.
Feel free to print these 10 Literary Themes as a cheat sheet to get you started. Post a copy on the fridge, by the changing table, or in the stroller cup-holder.
Give it a try and don’t give up even if it feels weird. Trust that you’ll grow over time and that your investment will nurture your child significantly.
10 Literary Themes for You and Your Child
Conversation is at the heart of literary education.
- The Circle of Life
- The Beauty of Simplicity
- Darkness and Light
- Love and Sacrifice
- Man vs. Nature
- Necessity of Work
- Wisdom of experience
- Good vs. Evil
Need more literary themes? Check out this ginormous list of possibilities. It’ll keep you busy.
I hope that this enriches your conversations with your child.
Daily nurture your little reader well before she learns that “when two vowels go a-walking, the first one does the talking.” (Keep in mind that when you teach her that little jingle, she may want to discuss the literary theme of “the power of silence”. Consider yourself warned.)
Happy talking. Happy reading.